Wednesday 6 April 2022

Movie Review: Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003)

A drama set in the art world, Girl With A Pearl Earring is visually beautiful and emotionally deliberate, but also slow and sparse.

In the Dutch Republic of 1665, Griest (Scarlett Johansson) is a young woman dispatched by her struggling family to work as a lowly maid in the Delft home of painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). She dedicates herself to household tasks under the guidance of senior maid Tanneke (Joanna Scanlan). Both Vermeer and his wealthy patron Pieter van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) notice Griest's beauty, intelligence, and curiosity, while she starts a romance with butcher's son Pieter (Cillian Murphy).

Vermeer paints slowly and methodically, placing a financial strain on the household and causing tension in his marriage to Catharina (Essie Davis), who is perpetually pregnant. His mother-in-law Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt) also lives with them, and is more pragmatic. In the privacy of his studio, Vermeer starts discussing painting techniques with Griest, and secretly asks her to help him purchase materials and mix colours. When van Ruijven demonstrates lustful intent and insists that Griest be the subject of Vermeer's next painting, the pressure on her intensifies.

An adaptation of the 1999 fictional book by Tracy Chevalier with a screenplay by Olivia Hetreed, Girl With A Pearl Earring constructs an imagined narrative around the Dutch painter's most famous work. The story of a lowly maid unintentionally causing sexual tension and becoming the subject of a masterpiece is of only average interest. Director Peter Webber therefore leans on style to enhance the substance, and for art aficionados familiar with the painter's signature elements, the movie is a treat.

Vermeer is known for interiors dominated by browns, greys, and yellows, punctuated by exotic and expensive earth-based colours including lapis, and expressive use of light. Supplemented by a sumptuous Alexandre Desplat music score, Webber designs almost every frame to resemble a Vermeer, with prominent use of candles and natural light streaming through windows, and a focus on inspirations found within the home environment.

Which is just as well. The character interactions are slow, moody, and often unfold in the silence of paintings. Scarlett Johansson as Griest floats wordlessly through Vermeer's home, her expressive eyes absorbing a better class of household than her own, her smile-incapable mouth fixed in a pouty expression as she causes tension by simply existing and obeying orders. Colin Firth equally uses an economy of words, and hides behind an artist's bottled passion to avoid revealing much of a person. The predictable outcome is plenty of pregnant pauses and soulful stares leading to...more pregnant pauses and more soulful stares.

The film does better demonstrating the mechanics of a maid's life in a European city of the 1660s. Griest's daily routine of hard scrubbing, market shopping, and ingredient chopping yields sore and blistered hands. Webber also does well teasing out a class structure of rules and limitations, wife Catherine clinging to strict applications of roles and responsibilities as a desperate emotional defence, while the Vermeer family demonstrates servile deference to patron van Ruijven, who essentially keeps them alive.

A few side plot threads add modest interest but ultimately little relevance, including the romance with butcher's son Pieter and a running (and, of course, silent) feud between Griest and one of Vermeer's daughters. Girl With A Pearl Earring is more about artistry and less about profundity, in this case a reasonable enough allocation of emphasis.

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